Ralph Hardimon on Drumline Chops

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Do you want to improve your rudimental drumming?

Are you curious about the evolution of the marching percussion activity?

Are you having trouble practicing?

To learn more about all of these things, check out this interview with Ralph Hardimon.  In this interview, Ralph and I talk about:  

  1. How the activity has evolved over the years
  2. Why drumline in space isn't as far fetched as you may think
  3. How to practice and improve your rudimental drumming
  4. What to look for from an instructors stand point when setting a line
  5. So much more...


Watch the Drumline Chops Interview with Ralph Hardimon Now

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About Ralph Hardimon

Ralph Hardimon is a rudimental drummer, percussionist, teacher, composer, and clinician. Ralph is well known for his contributions to the marching percussion, rudimental drumming, and drum & bugle corps activities.  He has played and taught with many ensembles over the years including the Los Angeles Police Band, Velvet Knights, Anaheim Kingsmen, University of Oregon, Santa Clara Vanguard, and the Blue Knights.  Ralph was the director of percussion for the Santa Clara Vanguard from 1981 to 1990.  During that time they won four high percussion awards and three DCI World Championships.  Ralph Hardimon was inducted into the DCI Hall of Fame in 2000 and received the "Life Time Achievement Award" from Sabian Cymbals in 2005.


Pat McLaughlin:  Today I’m joined with Ralph Hardimon.  Ralph is “the man” when it comes to rudimental drumming and I’m very, very excited to have him on the website and give us some insights into what he does and how he does it.  Ralph, thanks so much for being here.

Ralph Hardimon:  Thanks for having me.

Pat McLaughlin:  How did you first get started with rudimental percussion?

Ralph Hardimon:  Wow. It started way back in the 60s with the Los Angeles Junior Police band.  I grew up in Los Angeles so it was a pretty strong, high powered band back in the day.  I started with them.  Then moved on to drum corps, probably in 1967 with the Velvet Knights out in Southern California.  Then on to the Anaheim Kingsmen in 1971 through 1973.  I aged out in 1973.  That’s where I learned most everything I knew in terms of drum corps and rudiments, through my marching units.  Of course school too, studying the rudimental charts – the 13 essentials, 26, on and on.

Pat McLaughlin:  If you can think back, what was one of the main things you remember struggling with when you first started drumming and how did you end up overcoming that?

Ralph Hardimon:  Flam rudiments, mainly drags. I was struggling with them.  It was just a matter of slowing everything down and working really hard on even balance from right to left hand.   Breaking down in turns of what the wrist were doing with what our style was at the time.  But more than anything just slow practicing.  It took me years – it didn’t happen overnight.  At least a couple of years of hard core practicing slow and making sure I was breaking everything down in terms of drags, flam ratamaques, and things like that which not to many people play anymore but they’re still cool.  Try it some time.

Pat McLaughlin:  Absolutely!  Who were some main influences on you?

Ralph Hardimon:  Back when I was marching in the Velvet Knights, it was Don Clark, the guy teaching I believe he was from out east from Blessed Sacraments drum and bugle corps - Golden Knights.  An excellent teacher.  Also had the principal percussionist and timpanist for the LA philharmonic back then, Forrest Clark.  Bob Schroeder, Derek Smith, and Sammy S.  All guys I grew up in school that were pretty hot in rudiments.

Pat McLaughlin:  You worked with Fred Sanford for a little bit, right?

Ralph Hardimon:  Yes, for many years.  He was my best friend.

Pat McLaughlin:  Can you describe him a little bit – some of the characteristics of his playing and teaching that rubbed off on you?

Ralph Hardimon: Mainly when we were in the Kingsmen, we competed against them all the time.  We had a great drumline back then as well - Santa Clara in the early 70s.  Completely, it was more from a musical approach a lyrical drumline and a lot of his influence was from studying with Anthony Cirone out at San Jose State back in the day.  Quiet a lot of the guys in the drumline studied with him throughout the years - Allen Christenson, Curt Moore, names like that.  But I think I might have gotten off track thinking about the people who influenced…what was the question again?  Sorry, I’ve been working on music over here all by my lonely.

Pat McLaughlin:  About Fred Sanford and what type of impact he had on you.

Ralph Hardimon:  Just as I mentioned earlier being more lyrical with the percussion writing more than anything, musical phrasing.  His stuff was adopting a lot of the rudiments into longer, musical phrases that made statements.  It was almost like you could sing and hum along like melodies for instance.  It was real different.  It was more of a legato approach to the drums playing that.  I enjoyed quite a lot of that.  I wound up incorporating a lot of what I learned from him and my mentors over in the Velvet Knights and Kingsmen – Don Porter Jr. and Gerry Curvey.  Those guys over in Anaheim that put it all together.  Did some studying with Charles Dowd up at the University of Oregon in terms of orchestral percussion.  All those guys were my main influences in terms of people that had quite a lot to offer me while I was able to accept at the time with them.

Pat McLaughlin:  Very nice.  Back in that period, there was a lot of equipment evolution in terms of more drums being added to the tenors, marching timpani and marching glockenspiels and all that.   What was driving that, do you think, in terms of instrumentation and scoring?

Ralph Hardimon:  They came out with a lot of stuff in the 70s.  Everybody’s mind was into trying to produce and come up with different sounds.  For us in Santa Clare in the late 70s, it was the development of the 14’ snare drums, actual cut away drums for tenors as well as high and low tenors so we had quad drums instead of trios.   Left the trios and went to the quads.  Our minds were in a place where we were looking for different sounds.  We even played around with a 13” snare. In terms of pit stuff – we started grounding equipment.  I believe the Blue Devils and the Guardsmen, from Illinois, back in the early 80s – they grounded their tympani. That’s when that started.  They grounded throughout, for the whole show.  We had done that in previous years as part of the show, and they were marching.  It kind of started there. In 1984, a year that Thom Hannum and I talked quite a bit – that’s when he was doing the Cadets while I was doing Santa Claire – we were talking about grounding keyboard instruments and I think he was actually the first one to bring a ground marimba out on the field.  Where we were grounding instruments and putting them on stands, trap sounds the marching keyboards we did have we put on stands. 1984 was our first year we had full sets of vibe and marimba and percussion trap set-ups. It was a lot of fun.

Pat McLaughlin:  What was that like from a compensation standpoint to have new textures to play with?  Do you remember that being a specific moment where you had a mind shift for you or no?

Ralph Hardimon: I don’t remember it being a mind shift except for just more instruments to play.  You have to remember when we first started the pit and grounded instruments it was simply one vibe, one marimba, one xylophone, and one bell.  Of course better instruments.  It wasn’t that much of a change to writing until we started adding a couple more marimbas, another vibraphone, more trap instruments.  As the years went on and it has developed into now and continuing on, there are so many sounds out there available the people were willing to tap into them as the rules loosened up and changed our views. Goes for indoors as well, of course.

Pat McLaughlin:  What do you think over the past 20 years, since the 90s, has been one of the biggest evolutions in the activity?

Ralph Hardimon:  I would say the electronics more than anything.  It has expanded so much and people are actually picking shows where as the technology advances more people are picking up on it, picking shows they can use little more sounds that are available through keyboards.  Does that make sense?

Pat McLaughlin: Absolutely

Ralph Hardimon:  Before that, the development of the Kevlar drum heads.  We might have been the first ones to have them at Santa Claire and we started experimenting with them with Remos.  I think the first time we used one was in 1986. Or ‘87 for sure.  They were all yellow then but we really enjoyed it.  Of course I remember the first thing, talking to the guys about collecting all the drum keys because at least an inch and half of the rim would be cranked down, the double-rimming heads with the plastic heads which was a great sound but as those things came up it was about how much tension and higher pitch.  And that developed into zero tolerance in terms of the sound because everyone has to play exactly the same.   As you well know, it’s pretty exposed.

Pat McLaughlin:  What was the trial period like with those when you first got the prototypes from Remo and were checking them out, was there anything that stuck out to you?   Was it a completely different playing surface or was it more easing into the process of type of deal?

Ralph Hardimon:  It was easing into. We started discovering some of the limits in terms of the styles we were playing -  we weren’t playing too high drumming.  A lot of slow and different touches.  Being exposed to kids to this day to be exact with same interpretation so it’s kind of limited of what a lot of people would really like to do because it takes, requires a long period awhile to get the same batch of guys to play some of the same shaping that was not quite exposed from the plastic heads.  It’s kind of narrowed down now where people doing extra hard to do a little more shaping.  It’s tough but quite a lot of people have figured out how to do it and it’s moving right along as well as the development of chops.  But it’s really all about the clarity that’s produced on there and what everybody’s expectations are in terms of touch from player to player and the overall sound that they are producing from same playing surface and being in tune.

Pat McLaughlin:  When you brought the Kevlar heads in, did you have to re-think how you wanted to tune the entire ensemble?  Or was it this is a new texture we have, let’s roll it in and play with it a little bit?

Ralph Hardimon:  It was all trial and error of course because there was such a range of exposures with cranking it.  When we first started out, we didn’t reef them up as much as everyone does it now – just reading it.  Because there’s the physics of sound in music - there had to be enough air to push down to vibrate the snares.  We really liked that snare sound.  Spent a lot of time working on our own styles instead of taping them all up – which is a preferred sound. We went through the full gamut of experimenting with different sounds.  When you have some of the better players, you produce some extremely good drumlines with those players and your ideas you’re able to shift it a little bit more of sound because of the respect you earned.  What you’re actually performing with different textures and colors that are available with tension.  So we had to go through quite a lot of that to find a happy medium.  Before you know it, it was really about the exposures and how tight you could actually get it.  I think everyone has found a good happy medium now getting snares to respond to different bottom heads and how tight they want their drums up top.   When it gets to a center level the exposures are all the same – just pitch difference was your personal preference.

Pat McLaughlin:  Yes.  Were there any stories with the drums when you first introduced the kevlar heads and cranked up the tension?  Did you have issues with the drums going crazy?

Ralph Hardimon:  Absolutely, plenty!  We were blowing lug casings and stuff and caving in drums to the point where some of the drum manufactures had to put disclaimers in when they were sending their drums out.  If you use these heads, blah, blah, blah.  Of course these companies started putting glue rings back in the drums again like in the good old days - support rings and this and that just to build the things a little stronger to handle the tension because the heads weren’t going away.  Everybody adjusted that all the time and the manufacture did something wrong they would make adjustments and the thing would just keep climbing. Yeah, it was dangerous there for a while.  I can remember many occasions when I’d hurt myself or things would go flying by my eye, all kinds of stuff.  We dealt with it.  We never had too much tension on our drums.  A lot of things needed to be developed like bass drum rims and things because of tension.  That’s the way it is.  Everybody likes to hear what the dogs hear.

Pat McLaughlin:  With all the groups you’ve been part of, you’ve experienced a lot of success.  What are some key characteristics that you:  a) listen for when you’re watching a drumline and, b) try to implement in any drumline that you’re working with?

Ralph Hardimon:  I know I’m paying closer attention to what everybody else is doing more than I used to. Because at one time, I used to be the forerunner. A lot of my students, friends and acquaintances have picked up the ball and taken it up another level.  I walk slower and closer to see what the youngsters like to play more these days.  There’s so much attraction to certain groups depending on what they play, the styles.  Everybody pays attention to everybody’s stuff. It’s no secret that there’s not a note or phrase that really hasn’t been played already.  It’s just a matter of you putting your personality to it and calling it your own.

Pat McLaughlin:  So what would you say your personality is within a drumline context?

Ralph Hardimon:  Mine?  That’s pretty tough.  That’s going out there.  I’ve played so many different instruments over the years that I feel like whatever is appropriate for the music you’re selecting what’s going to work for me.  Then, everybody else’s personalities get involved in it and it becomes a specific thing.  Like being aggressive or – can you be more specific with your question?

Pat McLaughlin:  Sure.  You have your own line.  Are you looking for a line that is super regimented - all sticks in are super tight, or are you looking for something more laid back overall, or are you wanting a lot of big phrases or wanting more quick articulated things?  Any type of characteristics like that?

Ralph Hardimon:  I think all of the above.  You want your guys to be able to snap - that’s part of the gig. That goes back to the military stuff where rudiments first came from and drum corps first came from.  So that’s part of it.  Depending on the show, that doesn’t have to be that way all the time. There’s a legato approach as long as it’s uniform.  I think it’s all the above There’s so many different styles of music.  Things are so overall show-oriented. If you’re talking about indoor drumline, that’s a different story because they’re putting on their own shows, producing their own acts and music. In drum corps, everybody has a member of percussion that accompanied instrument so when it’s time for solos, it’s like any other group. So there could be a thin line between musicianship and rudimental. Sometimes they flow together and sometimes there’s a difference.  You really have to be careful what you put out there - make sure it’s something that is accompanying your music and then when it’s time for you to cut loose, you pick your spots and then throw down your spotlights on you big time.  I think everybody is doing a pretty good job of that.  There’s so much talent.  Everybody gets a piece. It’s just how well you’ve structured yourselves and shows off your different sections.  Everybody’s got it everywhere. I never dreamt it would get this far.  But here it is.  We put a lot of time into it and…kaboom! P

at McLaughlin:  Just like that, huh?

Ralph Hardimon:  It really is.  When I played in high school it wasn’t even remotely close to what kids were doing in Jr. High school or even elementary.   So watching it develop - I’ll be 61 in a couple of months and I’ve been a part of this since I was 13 or 14. It’s been an amazing ride, checking it out and being a part of it, pushing the envelope, moving it on so the rest of the people. I think the competitive aspect as pushed it and it’s more of camaraderie of the ensembles that play together then turn into a family like all types of music ensembles do. Especially the age where everybody plays together like 14 to 25.  Whatever the limit is for WGI and indoor lines.  Maybe it’s 22 or 23 – just like in drum corps.  I know there a wide range of players that are just awesome at all levels, starting out at elementary school levels.  That’s international.  It’s everywhere.  Everybody is kicking it.

Pat McLaughlin:  If you had to take the way the activity has evolved - because you’ve been involved with it – and forecast or predict where you think it’s going in the next 20 years, even if it’s a complete wild guess, what do you think some of the larger changes will be in the next 20 years?

Ralph Hardimon:  Perhaps we could we have performances in space.

Pat McLaughlin: The International Space Station Regional!

Ralph Hardimon:  That’s a tough act because things evolve on its own.  I have no idea what direction it’s going.  Part of it, I accept whatever is happening.  I like the old style, the new, I like the future, anything goes.  I’m locked into whatever is going to be cool.  How about you?

Pat McLaughlin:  Space sounds good.

Ralph Hardimon:  As long as you can hold your intervals.

Pat McLaughlin:  Have some jet packs on.

Ralph Hardimon:  Who knows? I said that first because I was being silly cause I like to.  What I’m really saying is I have no idea.  I just don’t know. Things are changing all the time there’s guys playing upside down, spinning, lights flashing on the drums, there’s choreography, ballet and dance while you’re drumming.  So space doesn’t seem too far away.

Pat McLaughlin:  So true.

Ralph Hardimon:  I’ll take it all.

Pat McLaughlin:  I want to ask you about running a drumline from both as an instructional standpoint as well as a member standpoint.  When you instruct a drumline, and obviously there are a thousand different situations, but what are some main things that you’re looking at when you go into a rehearsal?

Ralph Hardimon:  People’s attitude.  It depends on what kind of ensemble you’re putting together, there are so many different levels.  But whoever wants to be there that can be there, that’s what you’re looking for - people that are really going to practice.  Here’s the thing:  a lot of these ensembles are run by the clock.  And there’s a certain amount of time that you have to have a certain amount of time together before a performance or competition that you’re going to play for someone at all different levels.  So the clock is in charge.  You want to see who’s the sharpest in terms of picking up stuff because you have a certain amount of time to develop a uniform approach with your players as well learn the music and perfect it to play in front of an audience of some sort.  I’m looking at the attitude and the approach and seeing how sharp people are because I know what they are  going to have to deal with because I understand it – sometimes they don’t.

Pat McLaughlin:  From a member standpoint, you’re a member on the line.  What are you doing at home to make sure you are playing the best you can and providing the best for your ensemble?

Ralph Hardimon:  As a marching member?  I would like to think they’re practicing and putting the time in amongst all the other things people have to do.  If you’re going to be good, you have to put a certain amount in to be in those particular kinds of group.  Practicing specifics in terms of building up chops – the instructions are given out for that and  so many exercises for that – but along with making sure you’re practicing the right interpretation of the music that is being handed out to you.  But more than anything, it’s about learning how to play together.  Each guy has their own style and their own approach.  Now a day, there’s a lot more people involved.  Everybody has different approaches but it all has to have some kind of harmony in the end so they all work together for a cohesive ensemble.  So make sure you’re practicing the fundamentals which were given to you by which ever ensemble group, putting in some quality time, showing some progress.  Again, the clock is in charge.  You only have a certain amount of time before you get booted or get promoted.  It’s just like anything else.  Most things that are worth something, you’re going to have to put your time in.

Pat McLaughlin:  As a member and even as an instructor, there’s a ton of things to take away from the activity that are non-music related. Can you elaborate on that?  Name some things you’ve personally taken away from it, like general life lessons

Ralph Hardimon: Number one - and I’ve told all my students this from the past as long as I can remember - whether you pursue your career or not as a musician, these work ethics right here can apply to anything you do outside of music.  It’s about achieving something in a certain amount of time and how much work it takes to do that. That’s a lesson you can take with you anywhere to any job. There are no silver platters; you have to work for it.  There’s room for silver platters, of course, but we’re talking about your average Joe.  Not enough room for everybody to have silver platters handed out to them, and they can do anything they want.  It’s the work ethic more than anything.  What it takes to put something together - the time, the construction, the hierarchies, the set up.  There’s an awful a lot of work that goes into being successful.  If you don’t see your career as a musician there’s definitely something you can take out of it and that’s a strong work ethic – number one.

Pat McLaughlin:  Want to ask you, what are some of the top memories you have either associated with either teaching or playing?

Ralph Hardimon:  It’s an unexplainable feeling coming out a performance regardless of what it is and you’re speechless.  You can’t explain it.  Your full ensemble you’re with is just beaming.  Those are the things that I will never forget.  This entire feeling of doing something for an audience more than anything, being as a player.  Being able to get them to respond because as you know, if you’re not excellent most audiences will let you know one way or another.  From soft claps, to boos, to standing up and screaming, throwing babies, all other clichés that go along with doing something spectacular.  Does that make sense?

Pat McLaughlin:  Yes, definitely.  Let’s say you have a high school student who is just working it out, but as with anything they need some time to work on their flam drags, or the flam fives, or double stroke rolls and they’re just not quite getting it yet.  Do you have any practices for them to help them look at the bigger picture of it and break things down a little bit more?

Ralph Hardimon:  You really have to be patience because a lot of it is muscle memory and building those muscles.  You have to make sure you’re practicing it right and understand that eventually you’ll really get it.  The problem with drumming is the first thing is when you pick up the drum sticks they want to drum really fast.  Super special.  It’s personal.  My tip is to take your time and record yourself, if you can.  There’s nothing like watching yourself and saying, “Ah, I see what he’s talking about - where my finger is slipping off.  Or doing this or that.”  Recording yourself – audio and video – is excellent to even do with your lessons with your teachers, if they’ll allow that. Your private practice is nothing like having a video camera so you can go back and look at yourself as well as hear yourself. “Hmm, I see…”  It’s like dance and some percussion schools, there’s always mirrors or something for people to practice in front of so they can see it – it’s the same concept as having a recorded session.  Go back and check it out as much as you can.  I think that’s real important, don’t you?

Pat McLaughlin:  Absolutely.  But it’s better to hear from you than me.

Ralph Hardimon:  I’m just an old guy, and have some tips here and there.  But I hear you; I get you.

Pat McLaughlin:  So keep laying them on us - do you have any other general tips?  Some words of wisdom?

Ralph Hardimon:  Practice makes perfect. Nobody is perfect so just keep practicing.

Pat McLaughlin:  I like that.

Ralph Hardimon:  It’s a circle that just keeps going and gets bigger and bigger and bigger.  The more involved you become with it, the better you get at it.  Not 100% for everybody but there’s always levels of achievement.  I can’t stress how important it is to practice and practice correctly. Listen to a lot of music. Our music library is big.  I listen to everything that exists in the world.  Of course I do have my favorites.  But by doing that over the years, I’ve learned how to respect and appreciate other people’s music that you normally wouldn’t listen to.  And by doing that you open yourself up to a lot of great ideas.  So good to listen to all different kinds of music just to learn how to respect it – don’t have to like it. Even though I’m not a big fan of country & western, I respect it and I’ve learned to like a lot of it.  For me, my favorite is African Cuban Brazilian, and I love classical. There’s so much good stuff out right now.  Especially from all different regions of the world - China, Africa, the orient – all kinds of sounds.  All kinds of sounds from Africa, the Eastern blocks in Europe – Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, places like that.  Just loaded with unbelievable stuff.  Have to do some searching.  You have to go out and look for stuff like that.  It’s all there, especially on the internet. All on youtube.  Even Albania.  Just check it out.  Practicing and listening more than anything.  Maybe you might find yourself some other favorites once you open those kinds of doors. When I opened the door for Classical, I found I loved it as much as African, Cuban, Brazilian and jazz – there all on the same level for me.  What do you think?  Is that good?

Pat McLaughlin:  It’s great.  Thanks.

Ralph Hardimon: Gotta listen to this stuff.  Maybe we can take a break and I’ll think of some other great things.

Pat McLaughlin:  If you want to wrap up we can do that and then a little bit down the road, in a few months, we can catch back up.

Ralph Hardimon:  That would be great.  There are a lot of things I’d like to get more specific on.  In the future, we can get that lined up.  But I knew generally you wanted to tap in on a few things.  Down the road the road a piece, I’d be more than happy to come back.

Pat McLaughlin:  Wrap up real quickly with what’s the latest and greatest in Ralph Hardimon’s life.  What are you up to these days?

Ralph Hardimon: The latest and the greatest is being alive, still being able to create music and have it go beyond the page.  Actually having people binge able to play it is a blessing.  I hope that never, never runs out because all too often I see a lot of great people, great musicians where their music doesn’t get a chance to come to life.  Gets as far as paper. I’ve been blessed that way and hope it continues on.  How’s that?

Pat McLaughlin:  Perfect.  That’s great.

Pat McLaughlin:  Thanks you so much for taking the time to do this and sharing your ideas and thoughts with everyone.  Like myself, we all appreciate it.  Thank you very much.

Ralph Hardimon:  My pleasure.  

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Pat McLaughlin

15 January 2013 in Interview
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Pat McLaughlin

Pat McLaughlin is the founder of Drumline Chops.  He graduated from the University of North Texas with a degree in music education and is currently the percussion director at West Bloomfield High School.